By Allan May
While trying to spread my column topics to all corners of the nation, I decided to include one on Sylvestro Carolla, the New Orleans Mafia boss from 1925 to 1947. Since this is not an ancient period of time I felt I would have enough information to put together a decent biography. The book that seemed to have the most information about him was John H. Davis’s, “Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” This seemed like a good place to start.
It was May 1947 and New Orleans had just crowned a new underworld boss, Carlos Marcello. Word was soon sent out to the important Mafia families around the country that New Orleans was under new leadership. Marcello was quickly accepted. Even Frank Costello put his stamp of approval on the choice. From Palermo, Sicily, word arrived that Marcello’s predecessor, the recently deported Sylvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla had approved Carlo’s ascension to the throne. Only Carolla saw Marcello’s role as a “caretaker-boss” until “Silver Dollar Sam” returned from exile.
From the ranks of the Matranga gang, which dominated the New Orleans Mafia during the first two decades of the 20th century, came a swarthy, sleepy-eyed member with the nickname “Silver Dollar Sam.” The Sicilian born Carolla became one of the leading bootleggers and narcotics smugglers during the early 1920s. New Orleans would always be heavily involved in the drug business.
In 1925, Carolla took over the leadership of the New Orleans family from Charles Matranga. He moved to extend the family’s control of bootlegging and narcotics throughout the Mississippi Delta. Law enforcement officials charged Carolla with several offenses including attempted murder, but he was able to steer clear of any convictions until 1932. That year, Davis tells us, Carolla “shot and killed” Cecil Moore a federal narcotics agent. Carolla then showed the clout he had amassed by receiving the proverbial slap on the wrist; a four year prison sentence in federal prison. Carolla served just two years of the sentence before he received a full pardon from Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen, the political puppet of Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long.
With the tremendous profits Carolla made during the 1920s and 1930s from bootlegging and smuggling liquor and drugs, he was able to bribe public officials and purchase political protection in the city. His money was spread so abundantly that he “virtually controlled” the New Orleans municipal government.
The only mistake Carolla seemed to have made was never to have become a United States citizen. The Justice Department began deportation proceedings against Carolla in the 1930s, but their efforts were constantly stonewalled with legal maneuvers initiated by Carolla’s attorneys and by political interference.
Davis claims that the deportation efforts were “indefinitely delayed” during World War II as the United States enlisted the help of Lucky Luciano to ensure the safety of the New York City docks from saboteurs. Why this would have affected Carolla and New Orleans is not clear. In Rodney Campbell’s, “The Luciano Project: The Secret Wartime Collaboration of the Mafia & the U.S. Navy,” he never mentions Carolla, Marcello, or even New Orleans for that matter.
What would affect Carolla and New Orleans were the efforts of New York City reform Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to rid the city of Frank Costello’s slot machines in 1934. There are many stories, some comical, as to how Costello met Huey P. Long and arranged to relocate his slot machines to Louisiana. According to Davis, in the negotiation process, Costello, nicknamed the “Prime Minister of the Underworld,” had to use his skills. In return for allowing the slot machines into New Orleans and giving Huey Long a cut of the profits, Carolla wanted political protection from Long for his illegal activities in other parts of the state. Not long after the “one-armed bandits” arrived Huey Long was assassinated. According to Davis, Costello would now have to work out placement of the slots with Carolla.
In “Mafia Kingfish,” Davis claims:
Sam Carolla’s slot machine deal with Costello brought the previous insular Louisiana Mafia into the mainstream of organized crime in America for the first time. The move turned out to be an important milestone for the first family of the Mafia. Before long Costello, Carolla, and mob financier and adviser Meyer Lansky agreed to establish a national underworld communications center in New Orleans, and later a national clearinghouse for underworld money laundering operations was founded in the Crescent City.”
Looking out for the Costello interests was “Dandy Phil” Kastel (See my column dated March 1, 1999). Working with Kastel was Carolla’s associate James Broccato. Known as James "Diamond Jim” Moran, Broccato was an ex-Huey Long bodyguard.
Carolla brought in one of his lieutenants to help with the plans to place the machines, Carlos Marcello. Young Carlos and his brothers had made a name for themselves in the West Bank section of New Orleans operating “The Brown Bomber,” a bar named after boxing champ Joe Louis. The Marcello brothers supplied their mostly Black clientele with booze, women, and marijuana.
Carlos Marcello moved up the ranks of the Carolla organization after marrying the sister of underboss Frank Todaro. His work for Todaro and his desire to rise in the Carolla crime family kept Marcello busy.
In 1938, Carolla had to bail Marcello out of trouble after Carlos sold twenty-three pounds of marijuana to an undercover agent. Marcello was convicted and sentenced to one year in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and was fined over $75,000. Using his political influence, Carolla was able to get the fine reduced to just $400 and Marcello was out of prison in nine months. Carolla had sought the favor of the aforementioned Governor O. K. Allen for the reductions.
During the early 1940s while the war was going on, New Orleans became an important center for black-market activities. These activities were overseen by the Carolla organization. Working under Todaro, Marcello became a major player in these rackets. Like Carolla, Marcello, who was born in Tunisia, never became a United States citizen. Unlike his American-born brothers who were drafted, Marcello remained in New Orleans and helped exploit the war effort for the benefit of the Carolla family and himself.
By the end of the war, Marcello had so impressed his superiors and his new friends from New York City that he was being touted as the successor to Carolla who by now was in peril of being deported back to his Sicilian birth place.
On May 5, 1947 time was running out for “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla. According to Davis, Carolla called a meeting of top family members at the Black Diamond nightclub. Carolla reasoned the obscure establishment, frequented by Blacks, would throw off federal agents.
Attending the meeting were underbosses Todaro, Joseph Capro, Thomas Rizzuto, Frank Lambardino, and Nick Grifazzi. Also in attendance were Sam’s son, Anthony Carolla, Joseph Poretto, Nofio Pecura, and seven members of the Marcello family; brothers Carlos, Peter, Vincent, Joseph, and Anthony, and cousins Jake and Nicholas.
The purpose of the meeting was to choose a successor to Carolla. Carlos’s connections to New York, and the fact that by this time no one else in the family could match his financial and political clout, made him the logical choice to lead the family. Although the promotion of “Silver Dollar Sam’s” son Anthony was suggested – along with the names of other family loyalists – the Marcello clan had enough influence to put Carlos in as boss.
On May 30, 1947, the Immigration & Naturalization Service finally reigned supreme in their efforts to deport Carolla. “Silver Dollar Sam” was escorted to Galveston, Texas by immigration officials. From there he was flown to Sicily on a United States military transport plane.
So that’s the story of “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla - according to John H. Davis.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, Davis seems to have problems with some of his facts. Using my own library of books, I tried to confirm some of Davis’s statements. Checking seven books written about Frank Costello, I could not find Carolla’s name mentioned once in the slot machine deal Costello had with Huey Long and Carlos Marcello. Three biographers of Meyer Lansky failed to bring up Carolla’s name or any “national underworld communications center,” in New Orleans.
According to the government’s “Organized Crime: 25 Years After Valachi,” Carolla was deported on April 30, 1947, making it impossible for him to host the May meeting naming his successor.
Hmmm. Now what? Would I have to check “The Mafia Encyclopedia” or the “World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime?” I hate when that happens!
Sometimes when I read the entries made by Carl Sifakis or Jay Robert Nash I can’t help but shake my head. My organized crime library is currently at 485 books. However, these two gentlemen always seem to come up with facts and stories that I can’t confirm anywhere. Let’s take “Silver Dollar Sam” for instance.
Sifakis’s account seems to have been written first. Surprisingly Nash’s version is almost word for word. Both claim Carolla was born in Sicily in 1896 and came to America in 1904. Unlike Davis’s claim that he took over the mob in 1925, they claim it was 1922. Both authors claim Carolla’s main adversary in the bootleg wars was William Bailey, who, they state, “Silver Dollar Sam” shotgunned to death just before Christmas 1930.
Sifakis and Nash agree with Davis that Carolla shot narcotics agent Cecil Moore, but in their version he was only wounded, not killed.
The strangest story the two arrived at was that in 1929 Al Capone came to New Orleans, unhappy because Carolla was not supplying him with imported booze and was instead sending it to Big Al’s adversary, Joe Aiello, in Chicago. Why Capone wanted imported booze from New Orleans when he could get all he wanted from nearby Canada was not explained. Capone exited the train with his bodyguards, and there waiting for him was Carolla. When Capone went to shake hands, Carolla folded his hands behind his back and three policemen appeared. The police officers then confiscated the guns from Capone’s bodyguards and then proceeded to break their fingers.
Wow! I never heard that story.
First, it’s amazing Capone found time to even go to New Orleans in 1929. He was lying low in Florida most of the early part of the year in the wake of the planning and the execution of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He returned to Chicago long enough to bash in the brains of three conspirators in May – Guinta, Scalise and Anselmi. In mid-May he traveled to Atlantic City for the big mob conference, after which he went to Philadelphia, was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and spent the remainder of 1929 in prison.
What is even more amazing is that all seven of Capone’s biographers missed this little tidbit in their research and books about him.
Of course Sifakis and Nash have Carolla meeting with Costello and Lansky which I have already covered, or should I say not uncovered. Better yet, they state that after Carolla was deported he hooked up with none other than Lucky Luciano and in 1948 moved to Acapulco, Mexico where he acted as the liaison between Luciano and the American crime families. A quick check of four biographies on Luciano came up empty on these facts. Even Luciano himself forgot to mention Carolla in his “The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano” transcripts.
Sifakis and Nash both state that Carolla “slipped” back into the United States, but was re-deported in 1950. Then they inform us that in 1970 he successfully “stole back” to New Orleans only to die there two years later.
Perhaps the most bizarre comparison between Davis and the Sifakis/Nash accounts involves what Davis claims was the imprisonment of Carlos Marcello in 1938 for selling marijuana to an undercover agent. First, in James Morton’s tome “Gangland International,” he seems to have used the Davis book for most of his coverage of Carolla (this is probably due to the fact that the “broken fingers” episode left him bemused) until he reaches the point about the marijuana bust. Both Sifakis and Nash claim that it was Carolla, not Marcello, who was convicted and sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. They claim this led to the deportation action. Morton may have thought that made sense, however, he hedged his bet in reporting the incident. He devotes a full paragraph to explaining the arrest, conviction, imprisonment, as well as the fine and prison sentence reduction by Governor O. K. Allen. Incredibly, however, Morton leaves out the name of the man to whom this happened.
In the end though, my greatest disappointment was not finding out how “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla got his nickname.
Copyright A. R. May 1999